As American troops tighten their grip on Iraq and the United States begins to peer out from the trenches, it surveys a planet harboring, in equal parts, enormous resentment and expectations. The U.S. military victory shook American foes like Iran, Syria and North Korea to their core. The unwillingness to defer to United Nations sovereignty upset longtime friends like Germany, France and Canada. Images of Marines pulling down statues in Baghdad only deepens mistrust of U.S. intentions in the Arab world. Yet Washington may now have an opportunity to mitigate all the diplomatic damage incurred on the road to Baghdad, all of it contained in a ‘road map’ to Jerusalem.
With hardly a mention by major media outlets on Monday, Dov Weinglas, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff flew to Washington and presented Israel’s position on reviving the Middle East peace process to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condeleezza Rice, the president’s national security advisor.
After nearly two years of allowing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to rage on without intervention, the Bush administration may now, at last, be prepared to enter the fray, asserting once again America’s historical role as mediator and guarantor of an eventual peace.
Deeply aware of the conflict in goals between supporting Israel and the long-term U.S. interest in promoting democracy, or at least moderation, in the Arab world, the administration has been promising for months to publish its “road map” for a comprehensive Middle East peace. Many in Israel and the Arab world now believe that, after months of hesitancy in Washington, the administration may now proceed to play an active peacemaking role.
After the 1991 Gulf War, then-President George Bush helped convene a ground-breaking Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid that led directly to the so-called “Oslo accords,” the step-by-step land-for-peace agreement that came as close as anything to date in solving the conflict, only to collapse in the face of violations by both sides in 2001.
“There are things about his father’s administration that the president really wants to avoid — losing his reelection bid, obviously, is one,” a top Republican political consultant told MSNBC.com, requesting anonymity. “But there are things he wants to repeat, too, and one of them is taking the momentum of a battlefield victory into a Mideast peace conference.”
WAVES OF FEAR
Much of the American media currently is focusing on “who’s next,” as in next to be attacked by the U.S. military. In fact, despite a ratcheting up of rhetoric directed at Syria in recent days, and a steady drumbeat of warning to Iran and North Korea about their nuclear ambitions, administration officials say there is no “third act” of post-9/11 American military action on the drawing board.”
“Look, there are contingencies for everything, for God’s sake,” a Pentagon official said. “But is there a plan to attack Iran? A plan to attack North Korea? No way. My reading is that those will be political tracks, and in fact they’re already playing out like that.”
Other well connected figures who were hawkish on Iraq, including conservative Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, recently have spoken out in favor of a diplomatic track for Iran and North Korea.
And the example set by the month long Iraq war may have been enough to bring potential enemies around.
North Korea’s reaction, which came Saturday, was to accept the idea of multinational talks on its nuclear arsenal — a concession that clears the way for negotiations involving not only Washington, but Japan, South Korea, China and perhaps Russia. Asian analyst were quick to link the concession to images of Saddam Hussein’s statues being toppled in Baghdad.
Iran, even as it boasts about its progress in nuclear physics, also appears to be chastened by the American victory across the border in Iraq. What Iran’s army could not do for the entire decade of the 1980s took the United States only 3 weeks to accomplish. The Bush administration appears to think that, as in North Korea, Iraq’s example will suffice for now.
“Iran has the elements of change within it,” wrote Faoud Ajami, the Bush administration’s favorite Arab analyst, in February. “U.S. policy has been more subtle on Iran than its critics would have us believe. No credible American scenario envisages a war against Iran once the dust of battle settles in Iraq.”
THE ROAD NOT YET TAKEN
Could it be, then, that the next real project — the road thus far not taken by the Bush administration - will be a foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
To many, such a move now makes complete sense. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a festering problem that fuels Muslim anti-Americanism, generates terrorism, jeopardizes the future of Israel and inflicts terrible hardship on Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
Pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace would help address on of the biggest criticisms of the Bush administration. Having shown twice now its willingness to go to war, the administration no longer has a credibility problem among those nations who might be tempted to issue dares. Indeed, its problem is quite the opposite: having shown its mastery of the battlefield, can this administration now show its friends and trading partners that war and deference to Israel are not its preferred solution to all problems?
The cheering throngs in Iraq’s streets attest to the fact that many Iraqis are happy to see Saddam gone. But over the long term, successfully winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis in their journey towards democracy will depend on a willingness to appear evenhanded with Israel and Palestinians. A successful “road map” to peace may also begin to lessen the deep resentment felt by Europeans towards U.S. might.
“Clearly, both politically and economically, we have to find a way to mend diplomatic fences as gracefully as possible with the Europeans who were so adamantly against the war and who seem to have stimulated or at least contributed to what I believe are waves of un-deserved anti-Americanism,” said Prof. William Turcotte, Chairman Emeritus, U.S. Naval War College.
A LONG, HARD ROAD
The “road map” to Arab Israeli peace, often spoken about but rarely seen is a draft agreement first released in December created by the so-called “Quartet,” the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Created at a time of fierce criticism of the Bush administration for allegedly ignoring the conflict, the draft seeks to implement “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005.” That goal alone caused many to deem it a fig leaf for American diplomatic failings, and since last December, Iraq has so dominated the agenda that little attention has been paid to the issue.
Even before the Americans had prevailed in Iraq, there had been some progress.
On the Palestinian side, the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, a relative moderate, as prime minister, satisfies one of Washington’s demands for publication of the “road map.” Neither Sharon nor Bush is willing to do business with Arafat and the creation of a new “partner” on the Palestinian side appears to be critical.
Arafat, however, is putting up an 11th hour defense. On Sunday, he vetoed Abu Mazen’s efforts to appoint a new cabinet that include some Palestinians who have been critical of Arafat’s rule.
Palestinian observers expect a compromise to emerge.
On the Israeli side, Monday’s visit to the White House by Weinglas was seen by some experts as some initial jockeying on “road map” approach which as currently envisioned, would call on the Israelis and Palestinians to make large unilateral concessions rather than step-by-step moves reminiscent of the Oslo process.
InsertArt(1913618)Sharon has suggested that Israel prefers the step-by-step approach. On Monday, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz,Sharon said that the Iraq war had created “an opportunity .. to forge a different relationship with the Arab states, and between us and the Palestinians. That opportunity must not be neglected.”
And, he continued, “if it turns out we have someone to talk to, that they understand that peace is neither terrorism nor subversion against Israel, then I would definitely say that we will have to take steps that are painful for every Jew and painful for me personally.”
Despite this, Bush administration officials are under no illusions about the difficulties ahead.
“We’re banking on Arafat to allow someone other than Arafat to make some decisions,” said a source close to Monday’s talks, “and we’re banking on Sharon to, eventually, give up the settlements. That’s a very optimistic strategy, to say the least.”
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